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'The Letter' at Santa Fe Opera: What did the critics think?

July 30, 2009 |  2:15 pm

Letter Writing a new opera these days is a task that comes with big hopes and more often than not, even bigger disappointments. (Just ask Rufus Wainwright, Tan Dun and Howard Shore.)

The latest world premiere to hit the opera circuit is "The Letter," a partial adaptation of the the W. Somerset Maugham play of the same name, now running at Santa Fe Opera House. Composer Paul Moravec and librettist Terry Teachout have fashioned a noir murder-mystery about the wife of a British plantation owner in Malaysia who shoots her lover and tries to cover up her affair.

Soprano Patricia Racette plays the femme fatale heroine, and baritone Anthony Michaels-Moore plays her husband. The production is directed by Jonathan Kent and conducted by Patrick Summers. Among the technical credits is fashion titan Tom Ford, who designed the costumes.

Maugham's "The Letter" has been adapted for the movies, most notably in a 1940 Hollywood version starring Bette Davis in the central role.

In an article for the Times, librettist Teachout -- a drama critic for The Wall Street Journal -- wrote: "While a fair number of playwrights and directors have written criticism on the side, very few drama critics have changed directions in midcareer and written for the stage, and fewer still have had any luck at it. I'm trying to beat those odds."

Has he succeeded? Keep reading for the critics' reactions to "The Letter."

Anne Midgette of The Washington Postwrote that the composer and librettist have "failed" at their job: "In adhering to the rules of opera -- we must have arias and ensembles -- Moravec and librettist Teachout repeatedly show a tin ear for the exigencies of drama. The arias keep obtruding at inopportune moments to spell out things that don't need spelling out ('What have I done? I've killed him. He is gone forever'). They bring the action to a screeching halt."

Also unimpressed, The Denver Post's Kyle MacMillanfound much lacking in Moravec's vocal writing, which he said contains "unnatural leaps in pitch and non-intuitive phrasing — elements that can work in certain contexts" but that only end up falling flat here. He added that the vocals fail "to give shape or depth to the character's emotions — a major part of the composer's job. Even if this is essentially a melodrama, we still have to empathize in some way with the characters, and for the most part, we don't."

Taking a more charitable view, John Stege of the Santa Fe Reportercalled the production "a dark, massively entertaining confection" that makes you think you're in an old movie palace "with a shadowy Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray flickering across the silver screen.... This production — pure artifice and a tinsel melodrama at that — grabs us by the lapels and just won’t let go."

Craig Smith of the Santa Fe New Mexicanwrote that "Moravec and Teachout have certainly made 'The Letter' taut and driving and cinematic, which was their goal. But in the process, I think they have mistaken brevity for intrinsic value and left one of opera's most vital components unrealized: truly expressive arias for all the main characters, in which introspection welds dramatic truth with music that reaches the heart, not just the mind."

-- David Ng

Photo: A scene from "The Letter" at the Santa Fe Opera. Credit: Ken Howard / Associated Press